Let the Circle Be Unbroken

let-the-circle-be-unbrokenYears ago, in 2009, I read Mildred Taylor’s Newbery Award-winning novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, mostly because I’d never read it in elementary or middle school and wanted to see what everyone else had read. It wasn’t for some time that I found out that this book is part of a five-book series about the Logan family, African-Americans living in southern Mississippi during the Depression. Let the Circle Be Unbroken (winner of the Coretta Scott King Author Award) is actually the third in the series, and the second I’ve read.

This book, like the other, is narrated by Cassie Logan, a spitfire and the only girl in her family. The Logans are somewhat privileged in their community, because they own land, so they are sheltered from the terrible trap of sharecropping. But land-owning among a community of white farmers has its own dangers, and so does the simple fact of having black skin. Cassie watches and learns as hard times beset her family and friends. The book picks up where Roll of Thunder left off: TJ Avery, accused of a murder he didn’t commit, is tried by an all-white jury and convicted; a union of black and white sharecroppers tries to escape the cheating landlords’ imposed conditions, and fails; Cassie’s older brother Stacey runs away from home to make money for the family working on a sugarcane plantation and is jailed for his trouble; the Logans’ friend Miss Lee Annie decides she wants to vote and is evicted from her home for trying. And Cassie’s cousin, Suzella, the daughter of a black man and a white woman, struggles with the consequences — good and bad — of “passing” as white. Families are destroyed and shattered by racism and greed. But not the Logans. Not yet.

In my review of Roll of Thunder, I said that I thought it was a serious book for children — that despite the gravity of the material, the kids acted like kids and would be engaging to read about for the age group it is usually given to. With Let the Circle Be Unbroken, I’m not so sure. I think Taylor’s aim is the same as it was in the other book: it was written in 1981 (and the first two in 1975 and 1976) and hence the height of the black pride movement. I believe Taylor means to give African-American children a sense of their own history, something that’s not often taught in schools. When do we learn that black and white people sometimes did try to work together despite suspicion and danger, but were discouraged by class issues? When do we learn about the factors that prevented African-Americans from voting in the 1930s? When do we say, you exist, you matter? This book, this series, is crucial for that. I just wonder: would a nine-, ten-, or eleven-year-old connect with this much sorrow? It helps to see it through Cassie’s eyes — and to know she doesn’t understand everything she sees — but I wonder whether adults might grasp it better than children.

I do recommend this series. It’s extremely well-written and well-characterized, and the history is reflected back from a perspective we don’t always see in children’s novels. I will probably pursue the rest of them over time. Have any of you read all five of them, or any of the rest of them?

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Historical Fiction | 16 Comments

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery

lost-girlsHere’s how Robert Kolker describes the five woman at the center of this book:

They weren’t angels. They weren’t devils. One was the aimless dreamer of her family until the pressures of adult responsibility became impossible to ignore. Another was both adored and feared by all factions of her warring family, but she placed her hope for the future in the hands of her boyfriend. A third was raised by an older sister, also an escort, whom she worshipped and, at time, tried to free herself from. Another wanted to be a success, and coming home from New York anything less than that would have meant admitting defeat. Another was a self-made woman using her money to win a place back in her family.

These five women—Maureen, Melissa, Shannan, Megan, and Amber—were sex workers who disappeared in 2007, 2009, and 2010. Their bodies were found in the Oak Beach community of Long Island, along with the remains of several other women, a man, and a small child. The killer has not been found.

Instead of dwelling on the possible killer or even the investigation itself, Robert Kolker focuses this book on these five women, what got them into sex work, how they managed the work, and their relationships with their families and friends. This is a lot of material to manage, and it is difficult at times to keep the five separate stories straight. I eventually gave up trying too hard to follow the details. There was a list of characters in the back of the book that I wish I’d discovered before I started reading, as I think it would have helped. Still, despite my confusion, I enjoyed this book.

One of the things that I appreciated about the book is that Kolker is making visible people who often are invisible. In doing so, he presents each one as a fully fledged individual, with dreams and problems and flaws. He neither condemns nor celebrates their decisions to go into sex work. He merely presents it; he makes it understandable. He also makes clear that these women had connections—friends who missed them, and family members who loved them. But when they went missing, their cases largely weren’t taken seriously.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how important it is to understand the white working class and how their struggles have been ignored for years. In a way, this book looks at one slice of that world. Each of these women comes from a working class background, and you do get a sense that their options are limited. Kolker does not attempt to make any class-based analysis of their situation, but I found it interesting to think about.

Unlike many true crime books, Lost Girls does not spend a lot of time on the investigation. Instead, Kolker looks at the familes’ ways of dealing with loss, together and apart. The main mystery that he spends time on involves Shannan, whose body was not found with the others. She was last seen in Oak Beach, and the bodies of the other four girls were found during the search for Shannan. But it was unclear whether she was in fact a victim of the serial killer who took the lives of the other girls. He explores the questions surrounding her disappearance in some depth, but that’s partly because it affects how the families relate to each other.

Because, in the end, this book is about these women and their worlds. It’s not about the killer or the cops. And that’s probably for the best. Stories of cops and killers fill bookstores, and they’re often worth reading. But this book is different, and that’s what makes it especially worth reading.

Posted in Nonfiction, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Revolutionary Road

revolutionary-roadRevolutionary Road is Richard Yates’s debut novel from 1961. It is about Frank and April Wheeler, a couple of Connecticut suburbanites living on Revolutionary Hill Estates, and their mostly half-hearted and nervous attempts to break free from the banal rut they find themselves in.

I have to tell you that after reading Between the World and Me, I was not in the right mood for this book. Whiny white people with whiny white-people problems! Frank and April are extremely unpleasant characters. They are confident that they are much more intelligent and evolved than anyone else they know; much more sophisticated, much more politically aware, far less boring and stifling. How do they prove this, to themselves or anyone else? They say it frequently, usually over a lot of drinks. Frank’s way of showing that he isn’t tied to his job like those other schmucks is to choose a job he doesn’t like and doesn’t work at. Well! That’ll teach ’em!

April, of course, is even worse off. How is she supposed to lift herself above the common run? She participates in community theater, but it’s a complete disaster. She’s too smart to pander to Frank’s vanity for an entire life together. So… Paris! Yes! They’ll move to Paris, and April will get a job and support Frank while he figures out what he wants to do with all his talents besides his despised office job. The only problem with this, of course, is that the notion terrifies Frank (not that he would tell April that.) He isn’t really sure that he has any talents; he doesn’t want to live off his wife (he has hilarious visions of her coming home, polished and competent, while he sits in his bathrobe.) So he begins to undermine her, and everything begins to crumble.

I’ve said that I wasn’t in the right mood for Revolutionary Road. But I admit I was eventually pulled in. Yates writes beautiful prose, and the image of these two people raging at each other in a silent subdivision is compelling. (The most helpless people here are of course their two small bewildered children.) There are major plot points here that don’t work — the Wheelers have a realtor who brings over her “insane” son for company, and he tells them “home truths” that cause big cracks in their marriage. That’s a trope I could do without. And Yates can be a little heavy-handed with the symbolism, like the way Frank never completes the walkway from the door to the sidewalk. Yes, thank you, I understood that they are not getting anywhere. But still — Yates brings important issues in more subtly, like the war, affairs, abortions, the nascent importance of psychotherapy, and the yearning for “something more.” It wasn’t my favorite book this year, but I’m glad I read it. Have any of you read this, or seen the movie?

Posted in Fiction | 20 Comments

Bury Your Dead

bury-your-deadBury Your Dead is the sixth of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache novels (and the third I’ve read this year.) It follows closely on The Brutal Telling, revisiting events from that book and following through on the heavy foreshadowing Penny did there. It also has three of its own mysteries, so it’s a tightly-packed novel. This one takes place mostly not in the dreamy little village of Three Pines, but in Quebec City in the middle of winter, during Carnival.

There’s a lot of melancholy here. Chief Inspector Gamache, usually the center of calm, wisdom, and emotional insight in these novels, has been knocked off base by two things: a recent terrorist attack gone badly wrong, in which he and some of his people were injured, and the events of The Brutal Telling, in which he’s afraid he jailed the wrong person for a nasty murder. Gamache is staying with his friend and mentor in Quebec City, trying to get his feet back under him, and he is doing a little desultory research at the Lit and Hist, a small library maintained by the tiny, proud, defensive English-speaking community in the city. When… you guessed it… someone is murdered, and the body turns up in the library’s cellar.

The narrative goes back and forth. We see Gamache’s work to uncover the murderer of Augustin Renaud, an eccentric who has been working all his life to find the body of Samuel Champlain, Quebec’s founder. We hear his anguish as he remembers the events of the terrorist attack, and although we don’t know exactly what happened until late in the novel (which feels a bit manipulative, frankly) we’re able to guess enough to hope we’re wrong. We also follow Gamache’s own guesswork about Samuel Champlain himself, a historical mystery that doesn’t have a good solution. In Three Pines, Jean Guy Beauvoir has been sent to see if there’s a chance they got the wrong murderer last time; is there something they missed? And although he doesn’t believe a word of it, he obeys the boss and finds himself — eventually — able to open his mind. The braid of this plot, complex as it is, is well-handled; Penny knows what she’s doing, and she keeps the whole machine moving well.

Teresa just posted a critical review of the first of these mysteries, saying it was a bit too cozy for her and that she didn’t find the treatment of the antagonist very nuanced. Fair enough. I like these books pretty well, and as they go on they tend to give all the characters a fair shake, even those you think are never going to develop or grow. The one thing that bothers me about them — and this hasn’t changed in six books — is the prose. Louise Penny really, really likes sentence fragments. From no more than two or three random pages:

Gamache returned the older man’s smile and made a fist of his right hand. To stop the trembling.

Across tables across the province he and Gamache had sat. Just like this.

He wished he could take that hand and hold it steady and tell him it would be all right. Because it would, he knew. With time.

He examined Elizabeth. Plain, tall, and slim.

Aghhhh! This kind of choppy writing is absolutely endemic to Penny’s prose and once you see it, it can’t be unseen. It’s making me asthmatic. It’s pulling me out of the story. As much as I enjoy these books — and I do, I think there’s plenty here to like — I have to steel myself for this style. Perhaps this is the problem with reading three of them in a year? Or with reading them next to W.G. Sebald, with his eight-page sentence? Whatever it is — I will keep reading and enjoying these mysteries, but with the caveat that the choppy prose has been giving me more and more trouble as we go on.


Posted in Fiction, Mysteries, Uncategorized | 13 Comments

Between the World and Me

between-the-world-and-meI’ll preface this post by saying that it’s hard for me to know how to write about this book. I read it back in October, but didn’t know how to start writing a review. Between the World and Me was inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, in which Baldwin writes letters to his nephew; in this book, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his 15-year-old son Samori, about the Dream of those who think they are white, about the American heritage of using and breaking black bodies, about the ongoing struggle to create a true narrative of the world. But as I try, tentatively, to paraphrase and quote, it feels like paraphrasing poetry. The book is already so focused, so clear. I don’t want to do damage, or bruise a sentence by taking it out of context. I want to tell you: just read it. Just listen.

The tone of this book — really a long essay — is deeply personal. Coates talks about his own experience, his childhood and adolescence in west Baltimore, his time at Howard, his growth as a writer, his fears and frustrations and deep losses and loves and connections and discoveries and profound rage. But this is not just a letter and not just a memoir. There’s a formality, or perhaps a containment, to this sorrow and anger, and Coates spends time showing the connections between his experience and those of other black Americans, back for generations, back for hundreds of years to the beginning of the systematic abrogation of the humanity of an entire race.

Coates doesn’t admit the concept of race. Because of the strange quirks of American racial history, we have people with pale skin and blue eyes who are “black,” and people with dark skin and eyes and hair who are “white.” It’s meaningless; just a way to keep some people outside the sheltering definition of human rights. He shows the consequences of this long history and heritage: the powerlessness that adds unstable rocket fuel to gang violence; the terror that makes black families beat their children into submission around white people; the disparity between black and white lives. He asks the questions that occurred to him his whole life: about the American Dream that is meant for white people and built on the backs of black people; about the heroes black people are supposed to adopt (why must black people have only nonviolent heroes, but white people can have as many violent heroes as they like?); about the importance of love and community when you live in constant fear for your body.

I was well aware as I was reading Between the World and Me that I was not its primary audience. How shall I put this — I’m not excluded from reading this, or pushed away, I’m just not the person Coates is thinking about when he’s writing. This reminded me of a story Coates tells in the book: apparently Saul Bellow once quipped, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” Implying, you know, that Africans haven’t come up with any great cultural achievements and so they aren’t as good as Europeans. Coates goes into detail about how he spent time at Howard studying the great achievements of ancient African civilizations, trying to prove to himself that they had contributed just as much to world culture. And then he read this, by Ralph Wiley: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus. Unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.” There it is. Tolstoy wasn’t thinking about me as his audience, either. But I am glad to be at the table.

This book is a powerful, relentlessly honest assertion. It is personal and it is political. It values body over spirit — it says that the body is the spirit — and it profoundly values life. It values truth over myth, struggle over dream. In a country that has systematically and personally whitewashed and distorted the role of anyone other than wealthy white men, this book is a shout. I recommend it for everyone.

Posted in Contemporary, Nonfiction | 23 Comments

The Silent Woman

silent-womanI started Janet Malcolm’s book The Silent Woman in the belief that it was a biography of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I’ve never read much Plath — just the most-anthologized poems — and even less Hughes, and I only know the barest outline of what happened in that fraught relationship, so I was ready to learn. I was surprised and extremely pleased to find out that The Silent Woman has elements of biography — I did actually learn some things about the lives and work of Plath and Hughes — but it is actually a book about biography itself. Malcolm spends most of the book examining the rights of the dead and the living, the experience of the biographer, the relationships that form when someone is writing a biography, and the demands the reader makes on the biographer and on the subject of the biography. It’s a complex work: let me think about it a little here.

One of the things that makes the relationship between Plath and Hughes so suitable for a book like this is that one person in the relationship is dead and one is alive (or was at the time.) In our way of looking at things, dead people have no right to privacy. We can find out whatever we like about them, say whatever we please. But live people do have rights (and Ted Hughes had been fiercely defending his rights for a long time.) What is the balance? What happens when saying something about a dead person hurts the living? Malcolm puts it this way (beautifully):

What Hughes is protesting is being treated as if he were dead. The issue between the Hugheses and the public hostile to them is whether or not the Hugheses are dead. They have compromised their claim to being alive by their financial gains from the dead poet’s literary remains. They have eaten the pomegranate seeds that tie them to the underworld.

Malcolm goes on to say that Plath’s advocates want to restore her the rights she lost when she died: they want to uncensor her journals and letters, they want to take away Ted Hughes’s power over her literary estate. But (says Malcolm)

by so doing, by restoring Plath to the status of the living, they simply achieve a substitution: they send the Hugheses and Mrs. Plath down to take Plath’s place among the rightless dead.

Malcolm also discusses at length the tangled relationships that form between a biographer and her subjects — living or dead. Anne Stevenson’s biography Bitter Fame was generally panned for being under Olwyn Hughes’s control, but as The Silent Woman unfolds, Malcolm lets us see Olwyn’s “spider’s invitation” and how Stevenson (eventually — after years of information and communication) broke free. She points out that readers expect that alliance with the concept that the dead have no rights, and any softening there — any notion that the living might be protected, that a quotation might be removed if it’s damaging or hurtful or unflattering — is anathema. Is that right? Is it necessary? Why?

As the book goes on, we can also see that Malcolm herself takes sides. She is on Anne Stevenson’s side, for one thing. For another, she romanticizes Ted Hughes to a weirdly strong degree. Malcolm never meets Hughes (she does meet his sister Olwyn) and yet she compares him to Prometheus and Chekhov, she pities him for being trapped by biography, she is “electrically” drawn to his letters, and so on. It’s odd. By contrast, Plath comes across as a nebulous, difficult, abrasive person.

The interesting thing about that is not that she has a bias, of course. It’s that she openly discusses the impossibility of not having bias. She says that biography is a genre in which “the pose of fair-mindedness, the charade of evenhandedness, the striking of an attitude of detachment can never be more than rhetorical ruses.” She describes interviews in which people are polite to each other but are actually trying to use and outwit each other. Well, then, might as well be open about it, yes?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It was complicated and well-written, and while I’d probably have liked just a tiny bit more signposting of her own foibles, I think it’s well worth investigating. Are all her books this interesting? There may be more in my future.

Posted in Biography, Nonfiction, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

This Must Be the Place

this-must-be-the-placeDaniel Sullivan lives in a secluded corner of Ireland with his wife and their children. As this novel by Maggie O’Farrell opens, he makes these observations about the woman he married:

—She’s crazy, as I might have mentioned.
—She’s a recluse.
—She’s apparently willing to pull a gun on anyone threatening to uncover her hiding place.

It turns out that there’s a lot more to Claudette. She’s a former actress and filmmaker who mysteriously disappeared with her infant son years earlier and ended up in a run-down Irish house, never revealing her identity. Daniel recognized her but kept her secret, and only a handful of people from her former life knew where to find her.

O’Farrell spins out Daniel and Claudette’s past, present, and future by moving around in time, giving each a chance to speak. Also included are the stories of those who’ve known them, such as Daniel’s daughter from an earlier marriage and Claudette’s sister-in-law. Most of the chapters are in third-person, but some of the characters, especially Daniel and Claudette, speak in their own voices. The structure could be confusing, but most of the time, it kept me reading, wondering what secret from the past would be revealed next.

One of the most impressive aspects of this book is how expansive the story is. The focus is on Daniel, but when a chapter is devoted to an ancillary character, that character is given a fully formed life that exists outside and beyond his or her relationship to Daniel. We’re able to see that every person has a history that informs his or her actions, whether in response to Daniel or just in general. Most of the characters are flawed, some very seriously flawed, but they’re also dealing with challenges. And whether that challenge is a skin disease, bulimia, or profound grief, it is taken seriously by the narrative.

I also appreciated that the book is hopeful without being cloying. I needed a book like this, where sometimes decent people foul things up beyond repair without losing their essential decency, where sometimes things just get ruined by mischance or small mistakes, and where sometimes people still manage to find ways to live and be together. This is a great book that seems to have fallen between the cracks in the book world this year. Here’s hoping people find it and enjoy it as much as I did.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.


Posted in Fiction | 8 Comments

Still Life

still-lifeSo. This is going to be a difficult review to write. So many people I know are fond of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series. Jenny even put this first book from the series on my list of books to read this year. But, oh dear, I hate to say it, but I was not fond of it at all. It kind of got on my nerves.

First, let me say that cozy mysteries are not my favorite. I often find the portrayal of small-town life to be overly cloying and sentimental, the people a little too quirky to believe. But as small-town cozy-type mysteries go, this one isn’t bad. I mean, of course, the gay couple runs the boutique and coffee shop. And of course there’s an old lady who likes to swing her cane around. But the characters of Three Pines, where the mystery takes place, are given some layers and allowed to be complex. It’s just that the two most interesting characters in the town are dead.

Second, I liked the idea of Chief Inspector Gamache. He’s not a boozy middle-aged man with woman problems. He’s a happily married man who enjoys good food. He is perhaps a bit of a snob, but not so much of a snob that he can’t appreciate the jolt of familiarity from cheap coffee when he’s going out on the job.

As for the mystery itself, it was fine, and the resolution was quite good. The crime is the death of Jane Neal, found dead, shot through with an arrow, just days after she’s had a painting accepted in the local art competition. Jane has painted her whole life, but she never let anyone see her work, so this is a big deal. And the work itself is mysterious—no one can agree on whether it’s good or terrible. (Not so different from books, I guess.) There are red herrings and misdirections, of course, and the ending is surprising but doesn’t appear to come out of nowhere. The wrap-up, where the community deals with the after-effects was handled especially well, taking seriously the problem of not just losing a fried but also discovering a killer in your midst.

All of that leaves us with a well-constructed example of a type of mystery that I don’t necessarily love but can enjoy from time to time. That might make this book a minor disappointment, but it’s nothing to be annoyed about. So what was the problem?

The main issue I had with this book—and it niggled at me like a bit of popcorn husk in the back of the throat—was the treatment the new trainee detective, Yvette Nichol. When we first meet her, she’s eager, perhaps a little over-eager, in fact, and obviously still learning how to work on a team. But Gamache’s second-in-command, Beauvoir, and, it seems, Gamache himself quickly write her off as totally incompetent. And so she proves to be, but given how the story was constructed, it’s hard not to read it as a self-fulfilling kind of prophesy. She’s clumsy in her communication and therefore treated with scorn which makes her all the more clumsy next time.

Gamache only once makes a serious effort at coaching her, and he flubs it without Nichol recognizing the flub. When she later—rather hilariously—repeats his flub back to him, he doesn’t understand. He later gets furious at her for not recognizing his mistake. And then there’s the time she presents what appears to be a strong case against one of the characters:

“Any holes in the theory?” Beauvoir asked the gather, trying not to sound hopeful. While he hoped Nichol would prove not a total liability, this was a disastrously good showing.

It’s possible that we’re meant to see Nichol’s situation as an example of how hard it is to do the job well and how the experienced establishment is always looking for the new person—or the new woman—to fail. But there’s not much in the narrative to support that reading. Nichol is incompetent, and she is given little mercy. But it’s hard to see how she could be any good unless she’s some kind of natural wuderkind, which might create a whole different set of problems.

The scenes with Nichol make up a relatively small portion of the book, so they might not be enough to bother readers who love all the other elements. Indeed, some readers might not be as annoyed by the treatment of Nichol as I was. Perhaps there’s something I missed that makes her colleagues’ behavior early on seem less unfair! But as it was, every scene with her ended up grating and turning me against people I think I was supposed to like. The rest of the book wasn’t good enough to get me past that, I’m sorry to say.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries, Uncategorized | 17 Comments

Phineas Redux

phineas-reduxIt’s time now for Jenny and me to review the fourth book in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series. This one picks up the story of Phineas Finn, the main character of the second book in the series. When we last saw Phineas, he had left Parliament, disenchanted by all the political maneuvering, and returned to Ireland to marry his childhood sweetheart. It seemed like a happy ending to a fraught political career.

But Phineas’s happiness didn’t last. His wife died in childbirth, and he gives in to his former colleagues’ encouragement to return to London and stand for Parliament again. He also returns to some of his old relationships, particularly those with Lady Laura and Madame Max. His life is no simpler this time around—in fact, it’s worse! Before it’s all done, Phineas ends up on trial for the murder of a political rival, and that’s only after getting shot at by Lady Laura’s husband.

Teresa: When I’ve talked with other people about these books, many of them have expressed concern about the political content. Would it be too hard for a 21st-century American to follow? And I’ve usually responded that the politics are not central to these books, even when the characters are politicians. Marriage is as big a subject as politics, and often the political material is general enough to apply today.

I did, however, find this book a little more difficult at first. I had a hard time wrapping my head around what was happening with Phineas’s election and the rivalries that led to the murder accusation. But my distress about Lady Laura’s situation was enough to keep me going, and once the murder trial started, I was hooked!

Jenny: I thought that the return to Phineas was going to be dull, after the marvelous Eustace Diamonds, especially given that the most contentious political issue to date in these books has been the move to decimal currency (Palliser Plantagenet’s hobby-horse.) I have to say, however, that it’s the murder trial of the century. Phineas’s anguish, his sense of betrayal that anyone could think him guilty, and his loyal lady friends, were completely gripping. What did you think of the way Trollope handled the trial, with the various certainties and uncertainties?

Teresa: I really enjoyed everything around the trial, and I was especially fascinated and moved by Phineas’s feelings afterward when everyone was telling him to be happy it was over. People wanted to treat it as a passing thing, the sensation of the moment, but of course it would change everything for Phineas. After a trauma like that, how could he be expected to just go back to his regular life? I might be reaching here, but I wonder if Trollope was commenting on the public’s tendency to treat murder trials as entertainment when people’s lives are stake?

Jenny: I do think he was commenting on that — the curiosity of others, even those who were relatively close friends or coworkers, was terrible for Phineas. The only thing he could bear was complete loyalty and discretion.

I was interested, too, in Lady Laura’s situation. She marries for money instead of for love, and then winds up with a very unhappy marriage because she can’t find any love or any freedom there. (And let’s not discount the very deep unhappiness of her husband.) In this book, Trollope delves deeper into this question and — I think — blames Lady Laura for her own predicament, noting that she always reserved part of her heart for Phineas and never really tried to love her husband. Do you think this is fair?

Teresa: I was troubled by the depiction of Lady Laura. I appreciated her pragmatism in Phineas Finn, even though it became clear pretty quickly that her practical choice wouldn’t lead to happiness. But she didn’t seem like the type to then moon over Phineas the way she did. So I felt there was inconsistency in her characterization.

I don’t think Trollope is arguing against making the practical choice, since that’s the choice Glencora Palliser made. But what makes Glencora different is that she decided to fully participate in her marriage. Still, as dull as he is, Plantagenet treats Glencora well, which would make it easier to find some sort of happiness.

Jenny: I agree that initially Lady Laura didn’t seem the type to moon over Phineas. But it’s true that in Phineas Finn, she never tried to adapt herself to her new situation — she wanted to live her old life of political involvement and freedom while being married to a man she knew disapproved of all that. She wanted his money but not his lifestyle. Perhaps that set of choices foreshadowed what came later.

I wonder whether some of this is meant to reflect the political side of the book, which has to do with the separation of Church and State, and whether the suggestion of such a separation should come from the conservatives or the progressive party. Are we ever willing to make compromises when it seems to get in the way of our pride and self-interest?

Teresa: A lot of this series has been about making compromises. The people who are best able to get along in the world of these novels are those who are willing to compromise, who understand that the pure and perfect good probably isn’t attainable, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to have some happiness. It seems like Madame Max and Glencora, to name just two, see the world as it is and act accordingly. Lady Laura and Phineas have high ideals, and those ideals make it tough to be happy.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Y: The Last Man

y-the-last-manOn July 17, 2002, a plague sweeps the world. All mammals with a Y chromosome — including embryos and sperm — die nearly simultaneously, along with many women in accidents such as plane crashes. Society and infrastructure collapses into chaos, as women try to understand what has happened and how to begin reconstructing their countries and their lives around the idea that everyone who is living now is doomed, the last generation on earth.

But wait: one man (and his capuchin monkey, Ampersand) has escaped the plague. How? Why? No one knows. Yorick Brown is still alive, and a lot (and I mean a LOT) of people want to know about that. An agent from a secret society, known only as 355, and a geneticist named Alison Mann, vow to help find some of the answers, wherever it takes them.

While the women in this series of graphic novels by Brian Vaughan and Pia Guerra are interested in answers, the books themselves are not. For instance, several competing theories are suggested about where the plague itself came from (the government trying to disrupt the Chinese economy; Nature getting rid of human beings; a terrorist attack) but none is ever confirmed. There are a number of things like this, where we don’t get our curiosity satisfied, because the author just isn’t interested. Rather, this series is interested in considering human beings in a dire situation. How do people react to the threat of extinction? To loss, to grief, to having all their plans unraveled, to a new world order?

And that’s really the best part of these books. There are things about the series that could be done better — it’s a little predictable, for instance. But when it comes to the portrayal of a wide set of reactions to a violent shakeup, it’s aces.

Some consequences are shown to be wide-ranging, and are a result of the treatment of women worldwide. For instance, since only a very small percentage of engineers are women, it’s hard to get everyone back on the grid, hard to get the infrastructure working again, hard to get communications working smoothly. Few societies require or even allow women to be part of their military; fewer allow them to be combat troops. Would those societies have an advantage in an all-female world order? However, since over half of agricultural workers are women, there are plenty of farmers left, and food isn’t generally a problem.

Other situations are personal rather than national. Some women rejoice at the dismantling of the patriarchy, and a group known as the Amazons goes around burning structures such as churches to the ground. Other women grieve their losses at the Washington Monument (snerk.) The author includes a wide range of perspectives — women who are out for their own benefit, women who are terrified, women who don’t much care.

And what about the man? At the outset of the story, Yorick is a pretty immature young man, lazy and prone to despair. His slow development into someone who can take responsibility and care for others (not just for his absent girlfriend, Beth) is an interesting thing to watch. Personally, I credit it to the strong personalities around him: agent 355, Alison Mann, and others.



This isn’t the first single-gender world I’ve read about. Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite and James Tiptree (Alice Sheldon)’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” are good examples. Most single-gender worlds aren’t figured as dystopian, as Y: The Last Man is; they explore what all-female worlds could be like in terms of biology, power-sharing, violence, and procreation, among other things. Y: The Last Man is more about rescuing ourselves from those mostly-peaceful possibilities. To which I can only say: huh.

Posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels / Comics, Speculative Fiction | 4 Comments